The box was waiting on my porch when I came home from acupuncture. Cardboard, square, criss-crossed with blue tape, big enough to fit a toaster or a cat.
A stranger had sent me a package in the mail. I do not know this man, although he’d written my name and address in sharpie and his own name and address too. He’d taped pictures of wildflowers and river water to the box-sides.
At first, I felt a frisson of curiosity. I scissored the box open expecting a note of explanation, some connection I’d forgotten, maybe an item I’d left somewhere returned to me at last. But inside was pure bewilderment, wads of crumpled brown paper wrapping assorted “gifts”:
A small disc of smooth, sanded wood
A white rock
An issue of The Sun magazine from 2017
A worn, India-print cotton skirt in muted browns and greens
A plastic case filled with bean seeds, beads, and a safety pin
A Dollar Store-framed photo of the Whetstone Brook
A closeup photo of a fern
A closeup photo of a quartz rock, taken in the labyrinth behind the Neighborhood Schoolhouse, where my girls went to preschool and kindergarten (did he know this?)
A grubby white pen
A plastic bag stuffed with swaths of gauzy turquoise fabric
Some notes scrawled on scraps of brown paper—“Warm heart, soft belly” said one, enclosing a cache of wooden hearts
I held his intimate trinkets in my hands, everything permeated with strange incense. The scent was woody and oversweet, laden with musk. Maybe patchouli? Copal, he’d written on one scrap. I looked it up: an aromatic tree resin used in ancient and indigenous cultures. Burned in sacred healing rituals to clear energy blockages and provide protection.
I do not know this man. I did not ask for his protection. Yet he’d assembled this collection of special objects and paid $13.85 to the USPS to send them to my home. Was he watching somewhere now as I stood on my front porch in the fluster of unwrapping? I sensed this was a gesture not of malice but attempted kindness, but I felt a live panic rise in my throat, a bird caught in a chimney.
Mom has a stalker, C. texted the family group chat.
No don’t worry, I tried to downplay the box, but she shot me a canny look and told me to be careful. At 14, she knew all about psychopaths from her murder podcasts, and they were often quiet, unassuming guys in small towns like ours. I stuffed the paper and contents back in the box and set it on the kitchen counter while I flash-googled the sender, finding nothing but a White Pages listing confirming his address (three miles away).
When T. came home from work, he gave the box a furrowed glance. “Get it out of the house,” he said. “I don’t want that bad mojo in here.”
I don’t want to write about the box, but it has lodged itself in my psyche and writing is the way I can try to pry it free. But writing also implies a relationship. Was that what he wanted? To get into my consciousness, make me wonder about him and his hearts and stones, the connection he believed we shared?
I refused to read his longer missives on the scraps, apparent musings about knotweed and the rerouting of the river. I would not accept that transfer of energy. Instinctively I knew that if I spent time with his words, it would strengthen the link between us, the way reciting a spell strengthens its power.
On the etiquette of gift-giving, Emily Post says: “There is simply nothing as personal as a handwritten note.”
I was searching for some larger framework to explain the exchange and my own role in it, which felt inherently gendered and archaic—a woman on the receiving end of a male advance, forced into polite acquiescence. Of course I would not be sending him a handwritten thank you. I would not be responding at all.
I texted my feminist group chat in case anybody knew the guy. One friend said she remembered him from town about 20 years ago. Her bodyworker roommate had given him a massage and he’d been creepy. She sent me a screenshot of a recent Facebook pic—he had face tattoos, a ZZ Top beard, and sat on a stoop searing the camera with a look of pure malevolence.
“He’s not well,” my friend said. “Maybe you should call the police.”
The photo chilled me. But I balked at making a white-lady-in-distress call over some weird shit in the mail. What I wanted was help getting rid of the thing.
“Just throw it in a fucking dumpster,” said T.
I bristled. I knew he was tired from a long day of mental health work, knew he didn’t want to see me swirling in a maelstrom of angst. Later he told me he was trying to draw a clear boundary, protect me from suffering, especially since I was in a flare-up of my chronic illness, the pelvic pain syndrome that could lie dormant for months, years, only to ignite in excruciating symptoms that trapped me in despair.
It was a familiar dynamic. I wanted him to magically understand my agitation and listen to me unpack the meaning of the box. But he wanted it gone.
I put the box in my back seat and drove around with it as I went about my day. I could feel its heavy presence there and anger surged like a lit match. I was sick and in pain and a man was insinuating himself into my life. He felt entitled to my time and attention, like a catcaller on the street only more new-age hippie. Warm heart, soft belly.
I didn’t owe him anything. I did not consent to the box. I didn’t want to imagine his intentions or decipher the hidden significance of the gifts. Was he picturing me wearing the skirt, laying his smooth wooden hearts over my wounded sacral chakra?
Would it escalate from here, more boxes, more letters, maybe a visit to my house when I was alone? I counted up the males who’d inserted themselves into my life and body:
Julio who’d chased me across the playground in kindergarten, proclaiming he was going to marry me
My friend’s big brother who put his hand down my pants when I was 12, sitting with our families in a dark movie theater
The trench-coated bloke who’d tracked me while I was running in an Oxford park then exposed himself grinning in an aisle of blackberries
Three (or four?) naked guys approaching me intently at various Vermont swimming spots
The intruder who tried to enter our side door at 2 a.m. when my girls were asleep and T. was away
My college crush/rapist
I called the police and filed an incident report. If anything else happened, I wanted a paper trail. The dispatcher sounded puzzled as she took down the sender’s name and address. Officer Field told me I could file an anti-stalking order with the local court and gave me the number. But I thought of women who faced far worse every day than a musk-laden box and did not dial.
“All gifts should be acknowledged with a note,” says Emily Post, “unless the present was opened in front of the giver.” She cites occasions that require a handwritten thank you. After a wedding, shower, or birthday, certainly. After receiving gifts or cards of well wishes during a period of illness.
The box was a symbol. The box was a metaphor. The box was a receptacle for my rage, trauma, shame, and regret. The box was a parable about gender and receptivity, the yin/yang spiral of active masculine and passive feminine that I longed to revise or reject.
But when it came time to throw the box out, I got a pang of something like empathy that kept me from the dumpster. The gift was bizarre and misguided but not actively threatening. Maybe he’d read online that I was sick and sent me his version of medicine. I stuffed the skirt, beads, frame, fabric, everything manmade into the white plastic bag and trashed it. Recycled The Sun mag, the brown paper scraps, the printed-out photos, and broke down the box itself into a flat harmless thing. Then I took the wooden hearts and smooth disc and carried them through the back yard, where I tossed them onto the burn pile. Back to the earth, where we torched brush and old Christmas trees into ash.
A lightness came over me then, walking empty-handed in the garden.
A few weeks later, I realized I could not remember the man’s full name. It had whisked through my brain like dust through a screen door and dispersed into cool spring air.
Diana Whitney writes across the genres with a focus on feminism, sexuality, and motherhood. She is editor of the bestselling anthology You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves, a Best Book of 2021 and winner of the 2022 Claudia Lewis Award. As the longtime poetry critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Diana featured women poets and LGBTQ+ voices in her column. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Kenyon Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, diode, and many more. She is finishing a new collection, Girl Trouble, supported by a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council. Follow her @dianawhitneypoet and diana-whitney.com.